Forgive me if I wasn’t terribly excited about the Amazon Echo, a Bluetooth speaker/digital home hybrid with a built-in voice control assistant. After all, I’ve had Siri in my pocket for nearly three years, and I haven’t used it in any appreciable manner. And talking to a watch is my least favorite part about testing Android Wear devices. So I was sort of prepared to write off the $199 Echo as well. And yet, talking to Alexa, the voice behind the Echo, felt immediately more natural and organic than other forms of voice control I’ve tried. Even though the Amazon Echo isn’t a perfect speaker or a perfect voice assistant, I found that I actually liked using it. And although I’m not giving it a perfect score, or even a particularly high one, I think there might be a place for one in my home.
How to Get One
First off, you can’t just log in to Amazon and buy an Echo. Right now you must request an invite, after which you might be given the chance to buy one. I initially requested an invite back in November, shortly after Amazon launched the device. I didn’t receive my one-week invite to buy it until January, and even then, I was informed, I probably wouldn’t receive it until the summer. The Echo costs $199, though Amazon Prime members can currently get one for $99 (but again, only if they are chosen to actually buy one in the first place).
Or, if you don’t want to play the invitation waiting game, you can order one off eBay, like we did.
The Echo is smaller than I expected. It’s a matte black cylinder that measures 9.25 inches high and 3.27 inches around. It might be a little tall for some shelves, though I can imagine it fitting just about anywhere else in your home just fine. I do wish it came in a white option, though.
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The lower half of the Echo is covered in tiny circular perforations, and there’s a gray Amazon logo at the very bottom. The top half is completely unadorned, save for the volume ring, which occupies the uppermost half-inch of the device. The ring twists left or right to control volume, though you can also control that by voice or using the included remote, which I’ll describe in just a moment.
On the very top of the Echo you’ll find two buttons: one that turns the microphone off, and a multipurpose Action button. A sleek translucent panel lining the perimeter is a light ring that lights up when you’re controlling the speaker. It sits right next to an array of seven microphones. One of the coolest parts about the light ring is that when you’re talking, the cluster of lights nearest the microphone that picks up your voice will light up, meaning the light typically responds in your direction (though this wasn’t always true when I was testing in a smaller room with a lot of echo). You don’t even notice it at first, but it helps add a human element to the device.
The Echo also comes with a remote reminiscent of the one you get with Amazon’s Fire TV. It measures 5.5 by 1.5 by 0.5 inches (HWD) and has a rubberized, grippy feel. If you’re in a noisy environment, you can hold down the Microphone button at the top of remote and speak to the Echo, rather than shouting over everything or across the room. The remote also lets you control volume, as well as playback on any music you’re listening to through the Echo companion app. It comes with a magnetic holster that lets you securely attach it wherever you think you’ll use it the most.
Setup and App
Considering we bought this Echo from eBay, I was afraid it was going to come out of the box registered to someone else’s account, as is the case with Amazon’s Kindle ereaders. Thankfully it wasn’t, and even if it was, setting up (and resetting up) the Echo is super easy.
Setup instructions are spelled out pretty clearly in Amazon’s documentation, but the procedure goes something like this: Plug in the Echo, download the Echo app, and follow the app’s instructions from there. The Echo app is available for Android and iOS devices, as well as Amazon Fire phones and tablets. You can also access the app via the Web from a supported browser on your computer. For this review I used the app on an iPhone 5s.
After giving the Echo access to my home Wi-Fi network (which is how it connects to the cloud), I was up and running in just a few minutes total. The app then plays an introductory video, and walks you through some basic voice commands to help make sure you’re up and running. One cool thing is that you don’t actually need your setup device on hand for the Echo to connect to the cloud; once it’s hooked into your Wi-Fi, it’s good to go.
The Echo app itself is relatively spare, with a home screen that defaults to the most recent questions and commands you’ve asked the Echo. A tab in the upper-left corner slides out to reveal all of your options, which are divided into three categories. At the top you can access your to-do list and shopping lists, as well as set alarms and timers that will sound through the Echo. Below that you can access your music options. You get immediate access to Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. Amazon recently added support for iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify, but that update hasn’t been pushed to my device yet. Generally, the Echo defaults to Prime Music if you don’t specify something else, but having options outside of the Amazon ecosystem is a nice plus.
You can also connect to the Echo via Bluetooth to use it as a traditional speaker and play any local content on your device. Below the music choices are various options for Help, Settings, Voice Training, and recommendations for Things to Try.
Voice Control and Portability
Once you’re set up, you can start talking to Alexa. It sounds less robotic than Siri, but nowhere near as fluid and natural as the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Her. You can’t change the voice (at least not yet), but it’s fairly agreeable.
The Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect a wake word, so as soon as you say “Alexa,” the light turns on and the Echo springs into action. Out of the box, voice recognition is pretty fantastic. I didn’t have any trouble with Alexa misunderstanding anything I said, though my coworkers were able to cause the occasional trip up. The voice services should get even better over time, as the Echo uses your own voice recordings to improve its results. Or you can do it yourself by using Voice Training in the Echo app.
In addition to the commands you learn in the introductory video and Things To Try, Amazon includes a handy, bookmark-size, double-sided list of things you can ask Alexa. The topics range from everything in the app, such as alarms, lists, and music, to facts, weather, and general commands like “Repeat,” “Stop,” and “Cancel.”
Alexa had no trouble telling me the New York weather forecast for the day or weekend, as well as the weather forecast for other cities around the world. You don’t need to wait for Alexa to catch up either; you can pretty much just say “Alexa, what’s the weather?” without skipping a beat. Other things Alexa had no trouble with: state capitals, word definitions, holidays, and measurements. The Echo hooks into Wikipedia, so you can also receive spoken information on just about anything. The only catch is that you need to get used to saying “Alexa, Wikipedia: PCMag” rather than “Alexa, what is PCMag?”
That said, Alexa definitely isn’t as smart Siri or Google Now, and—this is a big one—lacks access to services like your email and calendar, which makes it far less useful. For example, you can set an alarm for 6 a.m., which is perfectly fine if you simply want to use the Echo as an alarm clock, but you can’t schedule a meeting on your calendar for 11 a.m. next Tuesday. Alexa also can’t hook into other connected areas of your home the way something like the Ubi can, in order to control your connected lighting via voice. Alexa is useful for the occasional question around the house, but none of the services provided here make the Echo indispensable.
And although I like the ability to add items to your shopping and to-do lists, the lists themselves are extremely rudimentary. You can add items manually or by voice, but you can only remove them through the app (which is kind of annoying when you find the nonstick spray under the sink moments after asking Alexa to add nonstick spray to your shopping list). You can search for the items directly through Amazon or Bing from the list, but in general, this would definitely not be my first choice for a list-making app.
Another problem: The Echo doesn’t have a built-in battery, so even though it’s small, it’s not exactly portable. Sure, you can just pull the power adapter out of the wall and plug it in somewhere else, but between this and the included remote, Amazon is sending a clear message that the Echo is meant to remain stationary. I’m not sure that really works for me. After all, I pretty much always have a phone in my pocket, and some phones (the Moto X, for example) can be woken by the sound of your voice, just like the Echo. And what good is a list-making feature if I realize I’m out of flour in the kitchen, but need to hold that thought until I’m nearer the Echo in the bedroom?
And yet, there’s something about the Echo that feels more approachable than a cell phone. For instance, I never asked Siri to convert kitchen measurements for me, but I asked Alexa. And I never told Google Now to add items to my shopping list, but I asked Alexa. It’s not that Alexa is smarter than Siri or Google Now; in fact, both of those more mature voice assistants actually offer a wider range of useful options and features. But perhaps subconsciously, the idea that the Amazon Echo is meant to live in your home makes Alexa feel less like a disembodied application and more like a genuine home assistant.
Audio and Conclusions
Let’s not forget, the Amazon Echo is first and foremost a speaker. And as far as speakers go, it’s fine. I tested it against the $129 Bose SoundLink Color, our Editors’ Choice for affordable Bluetooth speakers. There’s no question the SoundLink Color is a better speaker than the Echo, as it provides deep bass without distortion, two things the Echo struggles with.
On tracks with heavy sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Echo lacks any resonant low end, and starts to distort as you approach maximum volume. Dialing back the volume helps cut the distortion, but the Echo still lacks any substantial low end presence. On the positive side, the high end is crisp, and there’s just enough bass that music never sounds cold.
Most of the tracks I listened to, from Ani DiFranco’s acoustic “Garden of Simple” to D’Angelo’s jazzy “Ain’t That Easy,” felt warm, with enough volume to fill a modest-sized room with sound. If you’re primarily looking for a speaker, the Echo does a reasonable job for the current $99. But for non-Prime members that must pay $199, you’re now competing against speakers with significantly more power and better sound quality, not to mention built-in batteries, such as the Bose SoundLink Mini or the Sonos Play:1.
But if you’re just looking for a speaker, chances are you wouldn’t have read this far, or signed up on a waiting list just for an invitation to purchase one. The Amazon Echo is more than just a speaker, and yet I don’t want to exaggerate its additional features too much. After all, there’s really nothing you can do here that you can’t do with the smartphone in your pocket or the smartwatch on your wrist. But there’s something about Alexa—or really, something about the Echo—that keeps drawing me back. I let my purchase invite expire when my time came in January, but after spending some time with the Echo, I already signed up for another one.